How to Teach Professionalism in Health Care

by Angela Stevens on May 8, 2009

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How can medical schools, nursing schools, and other health care schools teach professionalism to their future graduating classes of doctors, nurses, therapists, lab technicians, and other health care providers? This is a question that was addressed by Jennifer Fehser, M.D., in her paper entitled Teaching Professionalism: A Student’s Perspective.

Healthcare ProfessionalismFehser discusses how Mount Sinai teaches professionalism in their Medical Ethics curriculum, which is taken throughout the four years of medical education. Medical students are challenged to consider professional responsibility, compassion, knowledge, respect, empathy, humanism, cultural competence, community service, and various codes of ethics. What the author said worked best for her, however, was not through didactic exercises, but by witnessing a resident who exemplified professionalism when he sat with the husband of a woman who was dying of breast cancer. I think that students would definitely reap the most benefits from having a mentor who can model professionalism the way Fehser’s resident did.

In order to better promote professionalism, Fehser makes several recommendations about what needs to be taught. It boils down to these points:

  • Obligation to society
  • Autonomy in exchange for altruism and public service
  • Learning from lapses in professionalism
  • Conflict between professionalism and financial security
  • Adapting in the face of managed care

This approach would be helpful, not just for medical students, but for students in many other health care disciplines. Certainly health care schools should all address issues such as confidentiality, bias, sexual harassment, misrepresentation, patient interactions, substance abuse, sleep deprivation, conscientiousness, acceptance of gifts, compromising principles, and conflicts of conscience. These issues should be addressed, not only in lectures, but in group discussions, special seminars, retreats, and in real world observations.


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